PORTLAND, Maine — In the latest twist in what has been a short — but heated — rivalry between two alternative weekly newspapers in Maine’s largest city, the Portland Phoenix has purchased and discontinued Dig Portland.
Officials with the two newspapers announced the deal jointly about midday Monday.
“It was unfortunate timing that we both started at the same time, because both of us now know that Portland can support only one alternative newspaper,” Mark Guerringue, publisher of the Portland Phoenix, said in a statement. “It eventually came down to who would buy whom, and it made more sense for the Phoenix to continue because it is an established brand.”
According to Monday’s announcement, Dig Portland LLC agreed to sell its weekly newspaper to Portland News Club LLC — the parent company of the Phoenix — and Dig Portland will cease publishing immediately.
“Portland is a fantastic market and one I am personally invested in, but in the end, it became clear that if there was only one paper in the market, they’d have a better chance of investing in quality journalism than if there was two,” Marc Shepard, co-owner of Dig Portland and a former associate publisher of the Portland Phoenix, said in a statement.
The sale and disbanding of Dig Portland comes about three months after Shepard and Lawrence — top officials with the longer-standing sister paper Dig Boston — announced their foray into the Portland market.
That move came at a time when the Portland Phoenix’s future was uncertain, as sister Phoenix publications in Boston and Providence had in recent years closed and a proposed sale of the Portland version to local buyers fell through.
But as Dig Portland prepared to launch — and hired most of the Phoenix’s most recognizable staff members and columnists to do so — the ownership behind the former daily Portland Sun emerged to buy and revive the Phoenix.
By late December, the Portland Sun announced it would cease publication and its editor David Carkhuff would join the Phoenix staff.
Guerringue hired Dan MacLeod, formerly of the New York Post, to serve as the Phoenix’s editor.
In early December, the Phoenix ownership group sued the Dig Portland team, arguing the newer paper’s hiring of former Phoenix writers and conversion of former Phoenix advertisers were signs of illegal use of trade secrets, among other claims.
The filing of the lawsuit spurred a heated exchange in the media between the heads of the rival newspapers, but the dispute went quiet in recent weeks.
Monday’s announcement broke the silence and indicated the two parties have resolved their differences, and that only one will continue on.
“I’m saddened that it seemingly came down to a legal matter,” said Nick Schroeder, who left the Phoenix to take over as the editor of the nascent Dig Portland. “From my perspective, the Phoenix was struggling for a long time when I was there, and I was really excited for this opportunity to start fresh with a new paper. I was more excited about that than the prospect of working with the Daily Sun and what seemed to be a rebranding effort on their part.
“It’s unfortunate, because in that time, there was a lot of confusion about what the state of the Phoenix was,” he said. “There was a four-week span when we thought each of our issues was our last issue.”
According to the announcement, both sides will work together on a transition plan for the publications.
“It was a tough decision, but it was the right one,” Dig Portland co-owner Jeff Lawrence said in a statement. “When we entered the Portland market, we were committed to providing quality journalism and arts and entertainment coverage, and in a very short period of time, we achieved that and are extremely proud of it.
“That said, it takes a lot of resources to provide that kind of journalism, and this buyout will allow the Portland Phoenix to invest more than we can in the market,” he said.
Schroeder acknowledged that the two publications likely appeared similar to readers for the few months they coexisted, but he said he thought they would have settled into different coverage niches as time went on and ultimately could have both survived.
“I had a lot of ideas for new directions that we would have begun to implement over the next few months,” he said. “I think what you would have seen would have been increasingly different papers.
“What’s unfortunate is that, I feel like with our shuttering, there was a clear winner and a clear loser, and I don’t think it had anything to do with the quality of the two papers,” Schroeder said. “I don’t mean that as a knock on their quality, but it came down to who had the benefactors with the deeper pockets.”
Left unclear in Monday’s announcement are the fates of the remaining Dig Portland staff and columnists, nearly all of whom left the Phoenix to join the Dig Portland team less than three months ago.
“I and I think all of the freelancers would be lying if we said we didn’t feel a sense of betrayal,” said longtime Phoenix music columnist Sam Pfeifle, who left the paper to write for Dig Portland. “This is a complete and total surprise.
“I’m sure all of us are going to be scrambling with what we’re going to do,” he said. “I have not had any contact with anybody at the Phoenix and, as of now, I’m assuming I have no place to write.”
Lawrence said Monday that he can’t comment on the cases of Dig Portland employees.
“I cannot comment on the specific details other than to say that [Guerringue] welcomes employees to contact him if they are interested in employment with his company,” he said.
Schroeder said he was not offered continued employment or a severance package as part of the Dig Portland closure.
“I’m feeling a little heavy-hearted because a lot of those writers — who are fantastic writers — don’t have bylines any more,” he said.
The Bangor Daily News provided in-kind web hosting and development assistance to the Portland Phoenix after its new owners took over in the fall.